City council approves free legal help for Detroit residents facing eviction threat

"This is a historic moment for the city,"  said Council president Mary Sheffield who led the campaign along with nearly two dozen organizations.

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Low-income renters in Detroit who are facing eviction can now receive free legal assistance, thanks to a newly passed ordinance spearheaded by the Detroit City Council. 

As reported by the Bridge Detroit, the nine-member council unanimously passed the Right to Counsel ordinance on Tuesday, paving the way for lawyers to provide free legal assistance to low-income residents facing eviction. 

“This is a historic moment for the city,” said Council president Mary Sheffield, who led the campaign along with nearly two dozen organizations, the Detroit News reports. “I believe that this is about stabilizing our neighborhoods. It’s about protecting our most vulnerable and I’m glad that we are here today. This is a historic day in Detroit,” Sheffield said. 

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During the first year of the initiative, $6 million in federal COVID relief funds and $4 million from a philanthropic partner will fund legal representation for Detroiters facing eviction or mortgage and property tax foreclosures in the 36th District Court.

Evictions in Detroit were heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 36th District Court sees an average of 30,000 eviction cases annually and tenants with an attorney tend to win their cases, Detroit News reports. 

“The greatest hurdle we’ve all had — all of the agencies doing this — has been funding over the years,” said Ted Phillips, executive director of the Detroit-based United Community Housing Coalition.

Hassan Beydoun, senior adviser and counsel for Mayor Mike Duggan, said on Tuesday that the ordinance “allows the city to provide these critical services to those who need them the most in a fiscally responsible way with sustainable funding, not just in this year, but hopefully in the years to come.”

“Today is the day we can start a new chapter in our Detroit history and put forth systemic change to ensure that we are protecting our most vulnerable residents,” said Tonya Myers Phillips, project leader for the Detroit Right To Counsel Coalition. “This ordinance guarantees tenants the rug won’t be pulled out from under them.”

Meanwhile, critics of the ordinance fear it could cause delays for landlords and cripple an “already slow” court system, said Phil Neuman, legislative co-chairperson for the Detroit Metropolitan Apartment Association.

“While I certainly agree that low-income tenants should have a right to representation, I don’t want that to impact the ability of the landlord to get their day in court,” said Neuman, an attorney representing landlords in 36th District Court.

“My fear is that the backlog will grow larger due to delays in obtaining counsel for the people described as covered individuals in the ordinance,” he said.

Fourteen other cities as well as three states have already passed the Right to Counsel ordinance, according to the report. 

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